My first, indirect impression of South Korea goes back to 1988, when a Moscow-based journalist colleague became one of the very few Soviet reporters to be sent to Seoul to cover that year’s summer Olympics. On his return, he was unusually taciturn and withdrawn. When I asked him how he liked South Korea, he pondered for a minute, as if mesmerised, and then said: ‘It was amazing: all those cars, buildings, people... It was like a funfair of life!’
On the day of my own Korean Air flight from London to Seoul, nearly 30 years later, North Korea launched its most powerful ever ballistic missile into the skies. On the same day, a North Korean soldier escaped to the South by dashing across the border. He was shot at by North Korean border guards, but somehow survived. Probably not the best of times to begin my own search for the ‘funfair of life’.
It is an astounding fact, but the annual per capita GDP in South Korea, a nation that has no mineral resources of its own and has always had to import them, has grown 300 times since 1967 and now exceeds £22,000. In just 50 years, the country’s economy has grown more than the economy of the whole of Europe managed in two centuries.
This boom is largely the result of its citizens’ devotion, hard work and technological innovation. Wherever you go in South Korea, you see technology in action – beginning with immigration control at the Seoul’s Incheon international airport where every arriving passenger is subjected to a series of biometric tests. While shuffling from one foot to the other, a small monitor shows you pictures of sumptuous Korean cuisine, images that are supposed to help relax your facial muscles while being photographed by a mini-camera on the officer’s desk. And, of course, there are the electronic, state-of-the art (and scarily excessive for a novice) toilets, with buttons like ‘massage’, ‘rhythm’ and ‘enema’ on special control panels above the seats.
My first port of call was to be the alpine county of Pyeongchang in Gangwon province to the northeast of Seoul, site of the imminent 2018 Winter Olympics, that ‘funfair of sport’. We were met at the airport by a mini-van and a gregarious female guide called Kim Sun-kyong, or Suni. ‘Are you concerned about the latest North Korean missile launch?’ I asked her straight away.
‘Yes, but not half as much as you are in Europe...’
That was a typical attitude of South Koreans towards the unending provocations of their troublesome northern neighbour: quiet awareness without fear. It was largely nurtured by dignity – a vital element of a traditional Korean psyche – and also by anshim, a Korean term for ‘calm’ and ‘peace of mind’, inspired by both Confucianism and Buddhism, Korea’s second leading philosophy, teaching to keep one’s sangfroid in the face of the most unsettling circumstances.
The landscape of the Gangwon province, dissected by the Taebaek mountain range, was stunning, and I had to pinch myself from time to time – not just to beat the severe nine-hour jet lag but also to remind myself that I was not in Switzerland. In the words of Yeo Hyung-koo, secretary general of the Olympic Organising Committee, the country is ‘99.6 per cent ready’ and tickets are selling well, albeit the continuing provocations by North Korea not helping. The organisers were taking those occasional setbacks with calmness and a good deal of ‘anshim’, and carried on adding the last touches to the Olympic structures.
Like so many places in Korea – not just the Olympic site – my hotel in Hanwha Resort, with both ‘Western’ and traditional Korean bedrooms (no furniture, warmed-up floor to sleep on), appeared perfect, yet not quite finished. That’s not to say ‘abandoned’, rather ‘fully functioning while still under construction’. This permanent incompleteness was in itself the sign of continuing development and progress, and by the end of my trip I was tempted to start referring to the whole of South Korea as a ‘permanently unfinished’ country.
CITY AT PEACE
Since the high-speed KTX rail link connecting Pyeongchang with Seoul was still nearing completion, I took a (very) slow Korail train to the capital from Jeongdongjin, an eastern coastal town to which people from all over the country – following an old tradition – flock to watch the sunrise every New Year’s Day.
Next morning, I woke to a view of skyscrapers, not mountains, from the hotel window. My room in ‘Shilla Stay’ was looking after itself: lights would automatically come on and off, curtains would part and close, the bed would warm up as required. The room felt like part of an urban theme park – a Disneyland of life?
Outside, tradition met modern once more in the ancient ceremony of the changing of guard at the 14th century Gyeongbokgung Palace, when young Korean ‘warriors’, in colourful period robes and moustaches painted under their noses to give them a more fearful look, were marching solemnly across the spacious courtyard under the pagoda-shaped arches – in the shadow of skyscrapers, and to the sounds of the janggu (a traditional hourglass drum), drowned by the unceasing din of traffic beyond the fences.
Using Seoul’s underground rail network was like getting a glimpse of a transportation funfair of the future. Endless white-marble corridors, moving walkways, palatial stations, trains that are always on time, and animated signs behind the carriage windows merging into short, on-the-go movies. Returning to the hotel after midnight one evening, I was pleasantly surprised to see many unguarded stalls in the subways, bearing goods such as perfumes, cosmetics and designer clothes, piled high and left unattended for the night. No fear of theft was apparent.
One of Buddhism’s main precepts – never to take something that is not yours – was obviously at play. In the words of Seung-mook, senior monk at Seoul’s Jogyesa Temple, ‘in South Korea, pretty much everything, including politics, is a little bit Buddhist.’ That partially explained the Koreans’ keep-calm-and-carry-on attitude to continuous danger from the North.
My visit coincided with the Korean Buddhism Jogyesa Chrysanthemum Fragrance Sharing Festival, and all Jogye Order temples were decorated with flowers. As someone who practises a different, Western, style of Mahayana Buddhism, I was honoured to take part in the prolonged Moktak (monk)-led Yebul (chanting ceremony). Chants and hapjangs (semi-bows) in the company of several hundred people underneath three golden statues of the Buddha couldn’t fail to instil mindfulness and peace. Underneath all its bustling places and rushing traffic, Seoul is still full of serenity.
ON THE LINE
With just a couple of days left in Korea, I still had one important place to visit – the Demilitarized Zone, only 50km north of Seoul. Myself a defector during the USSR days, I was both willing and fearful to see the world’s last remaining Cold War border, to come close to my own totalitarian past for the first time in nearly 30 years. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it’s the North-South Korean divide that has come to deserve the dubious moniker of ‘The Mother of All Borders’.
My first surprise was how touristy the trip was promising to be. Coachloads of people – Koreans and foreigners alike – were heading towards the Joint Security Area across the pristine landscape of the no-man’s land – a 4km-wide, watchtower-ridden buffer zone, filled with lush vegetation and thriving undisturbed wildlife. On the way, I ticked off flocks of exterritorial herons, wild geese and majestic Siberian eagles floating in the sky in huge numbers like benign, wide-winged fighter bombers.
Our passports were checked four times as our guide, with a smile glued to his face, was announcing lunch arrangements, finishing with a tactlessly facetious rhetorical question: ‘Is anyone planning to ignore lunch and to starve themselves like the North Korean people?’
No one laughed.
We soon reached Camp Bonifas, a US Army base named after Captain Bonifas, an American officer killed by axe-wielding North Korean border guards in 1976. The camp had a visitor centre, with regulation souvenir shop selling DMZ chocolates, DMZ vinegar(!), laminated North Korean banknotes and ‘I’ve Done the DMZ’ t-shirts.
Before being escorted to the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) inside the conference building, we had to listen to a short introductory talk by two US privates, both speaking with a characteristic Mid-Western drawl. They told us we were not allowed to wear flip-flops, ripped jeans or shorts that exposed the buttocks. We then had to sign a peculiar ‘Visitor Declaration’, paragraph D of which read: ‘Visitors will not point, make gestures, or expressions like scoffing – abnormal action which could be used by the North Korean side as propaganda material against the United Nations Command.’
In a disorderly formation we proceeded to the conference building, where both sides used to meet to resolve disputes, from where we were allowed to ogle (and to take photos of) a couple of stern-looking and motionless North Korean officers who were ogling us in return. Private Earp, our escort, told us they nicknamed one of the North Koreans Jack, and the other Bob. Several visitors, including myself, ventured across the MDL that ran through the middle of a small negotiations table and momentarily ended up in North Korea de facto. Despite the touristy touch, the sensation was ticklish.
We looked at some other DMZ attractions: The Bridge of No Return, where POW exchanges used to be conducted; the Third Infiltration Tunnel, secretly built by North Koreans and discovered by the South after a tip by a defector; the Dora Observatory – a look-out platform, from where pay-as-you-view binoculars are able to see bits of the North Korean territory, including the fake and permanently empty buildings of the Kijong-dong ‘propaganda village’. Contrary to its intentions, the North was making money for the South just by the very fact of its existence.
The last – and the most moving – stop on our itinerary was Dorasan train station, built during a temporary thaw in North-South relations, the so-called ‘Sunshine Policy’ under Kim Jong-il. The long-disused station had an eerie feel. It spelled the end of hope. Platform-only tickets were on sale at the station’s ticket office and once on the platform, we could examine the solitary sign reading: ‘Seoul – 56 km; Pyongyang – 237 km’, and the empty tracks running to nowhere. US President George W Bush hoped the station would reunite Korean families in a speech given at the official station opening in 2002. The hope lasted six years before the North closed the border to crossings again.
SOUNDS OF HOPE
Our last stop inside the DMZ was actually a real-life Korean funfair, part of the Imjingak Peace Park, situated right on the border with North. It’s a proper ‘Western’-style theme park, complete with roller-coasters, merry-go-rounds and crowds of laughing, ice cream-devouring visitors.
The wind was bringing in the muffled, near-orgiastic snippets of North Korean propaganda broadcasts, continuously projected by loudspeakers housed across the border. Those ecstatic sounds, almost inhuman in their insane aggressiveness, mixing with the jolly carefree rings, bleeps and dings of the funfair rides, merged into a seemingly inane, yet extremely meaningful cacophony of South Korea’s daily reality – exciting, inspiring and somewhat schizophrenic.
The New York Times recently wrote that: ‘There are some 8,000 North Korean cannons and rocket launchers aimed at Seoul, in effect holding the inhabitants of the city hostage.’ Here, in a tourist-friendly hotspot on the border between the two nations, I felt as if I had not been visiting just another ‘free’ Western country, but a colourful, defiant and courageous ‘funfair of life’ taking place straight under the barrel of a gun.